In an increasingly competitive marketplace tour operators are having to work harder and smarter to get their share of the mighty tourist dollar. One route to differentiation has been to specialise in niche markets such as wildlife enthusiasts, birdwatchers and photographers. 
Working for the Falkland Islands, a destination which relies on niche tourism to attract visitors to its far flung shores, it’s interesting to see this sector gaining momentum. These niche travellers are on a quest for authentic, unspoilt, ‘real’ destinations. With the rise in popularity of wildlife programmes such as Blue Planet and Springwatch, bringing the natural world into our living rooms in all its High Definition glory, it’s hardly surprising that more of us want to really get out and see the world.

 

According to recent statistics, the global market size of wildlife tourism is estimated as being 12million trips each year (source: responsibletravelnews.com). Europe is second only to the US in terms of source markets for wildlife tourism, with the UK being one of the top three European countries. Birdwatching has grown to be such a significant ‘niche market’ in its own right that the term wildlife tourism now excludes this group of travellers. This wildlife tourism market is expected to expand by up to 10% per annum over the next decade, fitting with a wider trend towards experiential tourism, or active rather than passive travel.

These figures offer a significant opportunity. But how can we harness this trend? And just as importantly, as custodians of the wildlife, how can we best manage this potential increase in visitors without incurring a detrimental impact on our most valued treasures? Should we follow the example of countries such as Botswana and orchestrate a high-spend over volume approach, or perhaps Uganda where gorilla permits limit the visitor numbers whilst also contributing funds to the national parks?

The answer of course is that it’s a balancing act. Visitors to the Falkland Islands for example come expecting to see amazing wildlife – the Falklands are home to more than 227 recorded species of bird, over 770,000 penguins, the largest black-browed albatross colony in the world and an array of elephant seals, dolphins and killer whales – but we have to ensure we strike the right balance between giving visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience and protecting the wildlife.

We work closely with Falklands Conservation and other groups to preserve the wildlife, receiving the latest reports and advice on the condition of the wildlife, which allows us to monitor and re-evaluate our tourism strategy. We are well aware that a lot of the species nest and breed here exactly because of our remote location, which conversely deters mass tourism. With only 2,500 local residents (85% of who live in the capital, Stanley) there are many outer islands in this 740-island archipelago which are completely uninhabited by humans or that have tiny settlements.

The beauty of the Falklands is the sheer abundance of wildlife, its accessibility for tourists and the fact that often, they’ll have the wildlife all to themselves. The one-to-one experience visitors can have with our wildlife is a big draw and we work to raise awareness of the remote locations whilst managing visitor expectation that we do not offer a pre-arranged, pre-fabricated wildlife experience.

The largest volume of visitors comes from cruise ships (more than 49,000 cruise arrivals are anticipated for the 2010/11 season), both expedition vessels and larger cruise liners. We offer a variety of shore excursions, run by guides who’ve been in the Falklands for years and understand how the preservation and protection of our wildlife is our future. Many of the best wildlife spotting areas are relatively inaccessible by foot, so when we have an influx of cruise or expedition vessel passengers we are still able to control the amount of people at any one site, even though our Islands’ population might suddenly double.

With the rise of niche tourism comes greater responsibility. Ultimately it’s the responsibility of tourism managers to work closely with wildlife and conservation experts to help determine policy and then communicate this to the wider travel industry and visitors. We have to tread carefully to ensure that what generates income doesn’t destroy the very thing that attracts niche tourism in the first place. The role of the tour operator will also take on increased responsibility. As the travel experts it will be down to operators to steer clients to the right product, to manage expectations and to educate them to travel responsibly. One thing’s for sure, anyone ignoring the niche tourism market may do so at their peril.

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